Ever wonder, while ambling down Boylston Street in Boston, what kind of people the Boylstons had to be to have a main drag named after them?
I have, and the image was: stern, self-righteous and Puritanical. Upstanding, of course, but not warm, humorous and open, like skateenth-generation Richard (Steven) Boyleston, whose art, craft and voluminous knowledge of the nation’s early days were on display recently at the Vineyard Haven Public Library, where he gave a talk called “Richard Boyleston: Life & Times of a Colonial Rifleman” Mr. Boyleston using the original spelling of his name.
Mr. Boyleston has spent more than 40 years researching and learning about the world his family lived in more than 450 years ago. In addition to accumulating a vast storehouse of knowledge, Mr. Boyleston has become an accomplished collector of 17th- and 18th-century tools, weapons, furniture, and apparel. He also proficiently recreates the furniture of the period and delivers its music with period instruments.
At the library, with a soft South Carolina drawl and a folksy, homespun manner, he displayed and explained the everydays of early North American settlers in the period between settlement and the Revolutionary War.
The effect was to create a connection with the time and its people and his audience. An enduring image of the evening was Polish-born Bozena Michalczyk of Tisbury taking a short, unplanned dulcimer lesson from the rangy, leather-garbed historian. Ms. Michalczyk was clearly delighted with the experience. “I guess, in the end, we are all connected,” she said.
Sandra Kingston, also of Tisbury, felt the experience as well. “Here we are, sitting in a modern library, smelling, sensing, touching and feeling that period,” she said. “It’s very different from a museum experience in which only the visual is generally available.”
A native of Aiken, S.C., Mr. Boyleston has similar sentiments. “I moved back up here last year,” he said. “Guess I just needed to be back where the family roots are.” Now a West Tisbury resident, Mr. Boyleston lived in New England years ago when he was a student at Bennington College in Vermont.
The first Boyleston to reach New England was Thomas Boyleston, a surgeon from England, who became a founder of Mass General Hospital. A later Boyleston became the first physician to use anesthesia in the New World.
Dr. Boyleston’s feat is recreated in a tableaux which hangs in the hospital.
The Boylestons were a busy bunch, providing direct family lineage to presidents John and John Quincy Adams, but that came later. Earlier generations had organized the Boston Tea Party and endowed a professorship at Harvard College that is still endowed after nearly 400 years. Later generations migrated to Virginia where a progenitor became a boyhood, then a lifelong, pal to a neighbor named George Washington. When Washington moved into Mt. Vernon, Boylestons built the wings on the original, modest dwelling.
To the modern Mr. Boyleston, it’s troubling that children today have little grasp of or interest in “the story of how they came to be here today.” As he explained the customs and mores of everyday colonial life, it was apparent that most adults don’t either. For example, he explained the necessity of the Kentucky long rifle, now called the American long rifle.
“Most implements and weapons in the 17th and 18th century were brought from Europe,” he said, displaying a 450-year old French belt axe, quite similar to a Native-American tomahawk. “We didn’t have the technology to produce them.
“The best guns were German-made and by the early 1700s, German immigrant gun makers in southern Pennsylvania were able to make rifle barrels. They rifled the barrels differently from the originals, giving them four or five times the range of conventional European weaponry.”
That difference would be crucial 50 years later during the Revolutionary War. “The long rifles had an accurate range of 500 yards compared with 100 yards for British rifles,” he said. “The Americans could reload in 15 seconds, so they could get off four shots and disappear into the woods before the British guns got in range — an important tactical advantage.”
The early times were dangerous, Mr. Boyleston said, noting that wars between Native Americans and settlers in the 1670s claimed the lives of 25 percent of the white inhabitants of New England. He later read from the journal of a farmer during the French and Indian War who was attacked by a French and Native American force as he walked two days to attend his aunt’s funeral. He survived in hand-to-hand combat, using his belt ax and rifle butt as weapons. “Many of the period rifles we see today have repaired stocks resulting from use as clubs,” Mr. Boyleston said.
Standing in his buffalo skin “hunting shirt,” with a belt ax, powder horn, shot bag and long rifle, Mr. Boyleston said, “If you met anyone in 1750, this is exactly how he would have looked.” He read from the chronicles of visiting British observers who wrote, “They (settlers) carry an ax in their belts and a long rifle with them always, wherever they go.”
Noting that life was both elemental and new to the settlers, Mr. Boyleston said “it really was like the Wild West as we think about it. Everything they knew about daily living in the Old World was useless on this frontier. They had to learn and adopt the ways of the native people. It was necessary to be able to live for another day. My research is that they walked a minimum of 15 miles a day, sometimes 30 miles, and perhaps end up in a fight for their lives. Not the kind of thing people can do today.” Not a bucolic, contemplative life, certainly.
“Living history re-enactments mostly focus on what the men did, but women did exactly the same things,” Mr. Boyleston said. “They fought with tomahawks, they were marksmen, they plowed, and raised kids. Women don’t get enough credit, seems to me, for what they did.”